Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic Cityby Nelson Johnson
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Through most of the 20th century, Atlantic City was controlled by a powerful partnership of local politicians and racketeers. Funded by payoffs from gambling rooms, bars, and brothels, this corrupt alliance reached full bloom during the reign of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson - the second of three bosses to head the Republican machine that dominated city politics and society.
In Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Johnson, Louis "the Commodore" Kuehle, Frank "Hap" Farley, and Atlantic City itself spring to life in all their garish splendor. Author Nelson Johnson traces "AC" from its birth as a quiet seaside health resort, through the notorious backroom politics and power struggles, to the city's rebirth as an international entertainment and gambling mecca.
Irresistibly told, with characters and pacing worthy of a well-crafted novel, Boardwalk Empire is the true story of a colorful city and its unique political culture.
"Read Boardwalk Empire. . . . Johnson spares no detail when painting a picture of the illegal activities that flourished in Atlantic City." Egg Harbor News (New Jersey)
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The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City
By Nelson Johnson
Plexus Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Nelson Johnson
All rights reserved.
Jonathan Pitney's Beach Village
Medicine wasn't enough. He needed to be something more than a country doctor. Jonathan Pitney had been caring for the sick and injured for more than 30 years, and he was growing weary. A medical practice in 19th-century America wasn't yet a path to wealth and prestige, and Pitney hungered for both. He knew he'd find neither caring for his patients.
Jonathan Pitney looked like a character out of a Dickens novel. Tall and lean, nearly always draped in a long black cape, Pitney's piercing blue eyes and long thin hands were the first thing others noticed. His pale craggy skin, together with his large hooknose and high forehead crowned by flowing gray locks, made him a striking figure. Jonathan, the son of Shubal and Jane Pitney, was born in Mendham, New Jersey, on October 29, 1797. The Pitney family had arrived in this country circa 1700. As told to a biographer, Pitney's great-grandfather and his brother had come from England to "enjoy civil and religious liberty, of which they were deprived at home." They eventually settled in Morris County, New Jersey. After graduating from medical school at Columbia College in New York, Jonathan left his parents' home in Mendham and headed south to the bayside Village of Absecon. He was 23 when he arrived in southern New Jersey, and he remained there the rest of his life.
There wasn't much to New Jersey south of Trenton in 1820. During the two generations following the American Revolution, things had changed little. With the exception of the city of Camden along the Delaware River and the summer resort village of Cape May at the southern tip of the state, southern New Jersey was a vast pine forest. This pine wilderness was interrupted by narrow, sandy stagecoach roads that followed the footpaths of earlier residents, the Lenni Lenape. Sprinkled throughout this green expanse from the Delaware River and Bay to the Atlantic Ocean were tiny villages whose residents descended from the British Isles and Northern Europe. Their lives were centered on farming, fishing, and the manufacture of glass, bog iron, and charcoal. In time, these pioneers became known as "Pineys." Absecon Village was part of that world and the place Jonathan Pitney chose to begin his medical practice.
Pitney was dedicated to his profession and worked tirelessly. He made rounds by horseback up and down the South Jersey coast to places a doctor had never been. Eleven years after his arrival, on April 21, 1831, Jonathan Pitney married Caroline Fowler, daughter of Rebecca Fowler, owner of the Sailor Boy Inn in Elwood, 15 miles west of Absecon and one of the many villages Jonathan Pitney visited. For years, Pitney was the only doctor many families knew and it was common for him to be called away from dinner or awakened in the middle of the night. Delivering babies, comforting the dying, stitching wounds, and setting broken bones from farming and fishing accidents made him well known throughout the region and loved by his patients. But his income was meager. Oftentimes he had no choice but to barter, and some say he relied upon his mother-in-law to get by. As the years piled up Pitney's enthusiasm shrank, and he became as weather-beaten as his doctor's bag.
Pitney wasn't satisfied just being a doctor, and about 15 years into his medical career he took to politics. A Democrat in a region overwhelmingly Republican, Pitney had his own agenda and bucked the status quo. In 1837 he led the successful fight to have a new county, "Atlantic," carved out of what was at the time Gloucester County. On the strength of that victory, Pitney was elected the first chairman of the new county government. He was also chosen Atlantic County's representative to the State Constitutional Convention in 1844. In 1848 he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. South Jersey wasn't ready for a Democratic Congressman and Pitney lost, bringing his political career to a dead-end.
Political power beyond his grasp, Jonathan Pitney decided to reinvent himself — this time as an entrepreneur. His hopes lay with a sandy little island off the South Jersey coast.
Early in his career, Pitney crossed Absecon Bay in a rowboat to treat a patient at a site known as "Further Island." Created by the tides and storms, this barrier island was a wild place dominated by sand dunes, marshes, and waterfowl. The Lenni Lenape had called this island "Absegami," meaning "Little Sea Water." Before the American colonists arrived, Absegami was a campground for the Native Americans who came to avoid the summer heat. Further Island was a desolate place with a handful of residents all from the same family, living in seven cottages scattered about the island. Aside from these solitary cabins, there were only "shanties for oystermen and fishermen, and a rude hostelry that served the purposes of the jolly fellows from Philadelphia, who came down in wagons to fish and shoot or to rough it." Early Americans enjoyed Further Island much the same way as the Lenni Lenape.
The Lenni Lenape gave up their rights to all of South Jersey in exchange for finished goods such as woolen cloth, iron kettles, knives, hoes, and axes. The first record owner of the land comprising Further Island was Thomas Budd. He bought 15,000 acres on the north and south sides of the Great Egg Harbor River in 1678 from William Penn and a group of trustees of the Quakers. The Quakers had become owners of the land — together with the rest of South Jersey — in payment of a debt owed to them. Budd sold off his holdings to other settlers for sale prices of 4 cents per acre on Further Island and 40 cents-plus per acre for mainland property.
When Pitney arrived the only people living on the island were all descendants of a Revolutionary War veteran, Jeremiah Leeds. Several years after the war, Leeds built a cedar log cabin on Further Island and settled there with his wife, Judith. (The Leeds' homestead was the site of what was later to become Columbus Park and after that the "Corridor" at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway.) Leeds and those who followed him called their home "Absecon Island."
Jeremiah Leeds was a bear of a man, standing six-foot-tall and weighing 250 pounds. With the help of his 10 children, he cleared the fields around his home and raised crops of corn and rye. The crops he grew and sold, plus his catches from fishing and hunting, allowed the Leeds family to want for little. Leeds enjoyed the solitude of the island. The thrifty farmer bought land every chance he could but never sold any. At the time of his death, Jeremiah Leeds owned nearly 1,200 acres on Absecon Island, having title to everything except a single tract of 131 acres.
Pitney was charmed by the serenity and unspoiled beauty of Absecon Island. He returned often and grew convinced that this was where he would make his mark. Pitney believed that Absecon Island had potential as a vacation retreat for the wealthy. As a doctor, Pitney felt the island could be promoted as a health resort. He wasn't going to get rich from his medical practice, nor would he ever have any real clout in politics, but as the founder of a resort he might gain both money and power.
Pitney's dream was to build a "city by the sea." He tried selling his idea by touting the healing powers of salt water and sea air, recommending a stay at the beach for every ailment. The problem was getting people to South Jersey and then to the island.
Rail transportation was the answer. During the second half of the 19th century, railroads opened vast tracts of land, otherwise inaccessible, to development. In Pitney's time the railroad locomotive became a symbol for progress and opportunity. Pitney knew it was his best and only hope to exploit Absecon Island.
Pitney began his campaign by writing letters to any newspaper that would print them, concentrating on the Philadelphia dailies. He recognized the potential for a link between Philadelphia and Absecon Island. If his plans were to become a reality he needed to position his health resort within the orbit of a major population center. Philadelphia was his only choice. In his letters, from "Doctor Pitney," he expounded upon the health benefits of Absecon Island. In all his letters he stressed that the only thing necessary to make this health-giving island available to everyone was a railroad from Philadelphia to the seashore. Pitney's letter campaign continued for years without success. The only people excited about his idea were the descendants of Jeremiah Leeds. Some of them had no desire to farm and hoped to sell their land.
But even the Leeds family had trouble believing Pitney could ever make anything of Absecon Island. The island that existed in 1850, as Pitney wrote in his letters, consisted "almost exclusively of fine white sand, piled in hills like snowdrifts." There were "several ridges found on these old beaches separated by long, narrow valleys in which were found coarse grasses, rushes, low bushes, and vines in addition to oak, cedar, and holly timber." The summit of one of these sand dunes was more than 50 feet high. The island was covered with a growth of trees: "wild fruits, beach plums, fox grapes, and huckleberries were found abundantly in some places."
Less appealing than the holly trees and wild fruits were the insects. Between the months of June and September, the mosquitoes and greenhead flies ruled the island. During the summer, whenever the ocean breeze subsided, the greenhead flies were everywhere. They were so large they cast a shadow as they swarmed about their victims. These flies were nasty creatures and the pain of their bites lingered for days. Cider vinegar was the only lotion that helped ease the sting. Absecon Island may have been a pristine wilderness, but it wasn't a vacationer's paradise or a place one would think of as a health resort. No one reading Pitney's letters who was familiar with South Jersey's barrier islands could have taken him seriously.
With no success from his letter campaign, Pitney decided to pursue a railroad charter by presenting his idea to the state legislature. The right to construct a rail line would give him credibility with investors. In 1851 he made several trips to Trenton to meet with political leaders and lobby for his railroad. The trips by horseback were long and lonely, and the reception wasn't friendly.
The legislators labeled his idea "Pitney's folly." They rejected it with almost no debate and ridiculed it as the "Railroad to Nowhere." The consensus of the legislature was that it wasn't possible for a new seacoast resort to compete with Cape May, which was America's first seashore resort. Wealthy businessmen from Philadelphia and Baltimore, as well as plantation owners and tobacco brokers from Maryland and Virginia, had been vacationing in Cape May since the 1790s and there was no reason to believe that would change.
Cape May had evolved from a sportsman's fishing village where the upper class went to "rough it." Staying overnight in cedar log beach houses and tents, these early vacationers spent their days fishing and hunting waterfowl. With the help of slaves, visitors prepared their own meals and passed the evenings gathered around campfires. Over the next several decades, businessmen from Philadelphia and Delaware constructed hotels and boardinghouses, extending the pleasures of a summer vacation at Cape May's beach to the less hardy.
One visitor to Cape May in the summer of 1850 wrote to her readers at home describing the "parti-colored scene" created by the new sport of "seabathing." She reported that thousands of people, "men, women and children, in red, blue, and yellow pantaloons and yellow straw hats adorned with bright red ribbon, go out into the sea in crowds, and leap up and down in the heaving waves amid great laughter and merriment." The reporter, Swedish novelist and travel writer Frederika Bremer (1801–1865), reporting on the scene at Cape May's beach continued, "White and black people, horses and carriages, and dogs — all are there, one among another, and just before them great fishes, porpoises, lift up their heads, and sometime take a huge leap, very likely because they are so amused at seeing human beings leaping about in their own element."
In pre-Civil War days, Cape May was renowned as a "Southern resort" and was a mecca for the cream of Southern society. Southern planters and the elite of the North brought their gleaming horse-drawn carriages and paraded in the sun along the water's edge. Nationally celebrated bands performed for the ladies in the fine hotels, while the men passed their time gambling. The most popular gambling house was The Blue Pig — for "gentlemen" only.
By 1850, no resort in America could compare to the Jersey Cape in terms of attracting the rich and famous. More national figures made Cape May their summer retreat than any other place. Saratoga made claims to the contrary, but only Cape May could boast of frequent visits from presidents; several made it their summertime headquarters. The only resort that rivaled Cape May in the quest to be the Summer White House was Long Branch, New Jersey, more than 100 miles north. There was no need for a third resort, especially one in the southern part of the state.
A majority of Cape May's visitors made the trip by sailing sloop and steamship, though some arrived by stagecoach. Regardless of how one traveled, the trip was expensive and time-consuming. But Cape May's vacationers were loyal and their resort prospered. It was popular with Trenton's leaders and most of the legislators believed that if there were to be a railroad to the Jersey Shore, it should be to Cape May.
Another obstacle facing Pitney was the monopoly of the Camden-Amboy Railroad. In 1832 the legislature gave this North Jersey-based railroad an exclusive right-of-way across the state. While the Camden-Amboy had no plans to construct a railroad in South Jersey, the legislators were not about to permit someone like Pitney to get into the railroad business. Having neither financial resources nor the right political contacts, Pitney's idea for linking Philadelphia to an obscure, undeveloped island was nonsense. In rejecting his idea, the legislators asked, "Whoever heard of a railroad with only one end?"
Pitney's humiliation before the state legislature forced a change in his strategy. He quit trying for popular support and set about selling his idea to the rich and powerful. In the mid-19th century, the elite of South Jersey were the bog iron and glass barons. A dozen or so families, these barons controlled most of the wealth, owned nearly all of the undeveloped land, and employed almost anyone who wasn't a farmer or fisherman. Pitney cited the need of iron and glass factories for better transportation and argued that their goods could be shipped more cheaply by the iron horse. Things began to happen for Jonathan Pitney when he won the support of Samuel Richards.
The name "Richards" cast a spell. From the American Colonial era to the Civil War, the Richards family was the most influential in southern New Jersey. Centered in villages of Hammonton and Batsto, the Richards' empire included iron works, glass furnaces, cotton mills, paper factories, brickyards, and farms. As a family, the Richards were among the largest landholders in the Eastern United States for several generations. At their peak the Richards' family holdings collectively totaled more than one-quarter million acres.
Samuel Richards, as one biographer noted, "looked like a bank president and worked like a horse. For all his handsome appearance and meticulous dress, no task was too small, no problem too intricate for him to tackle personally." Richards was a buccaneer-type entrepreneur who lived the high life. He owned a beautiful mansion with sprawling grounds and servants in South Jersey, as well as a palatial Victorian home in Philadelphia. He was part of the aristocracy. Vital to Pitney's dreams, Samuel Richards understood the importance of a rail line between Philadelphia and Absecon Island. He saw the economic potential of Pitney's railroad and realized it could make his family even wealthier.
Railroading was high adventure for entrepreneurs in the 19th century, and Samuel Richards was anxious to become an investor. More than anything else, it was the rise of the railroad that transformed the American economy in the 1840s and '50s. The development of railroads throughout the country had an enormous effect on the economy as a whole. While the demand for iron rails was first met mainly by importation from England, the railroads, in time, spurred development of America's iron industry. Because railroads required a huge outlay of capital, their promoters pioneered new methods for financing business. At a time when most manufacturing and commercial concerns were still owned by families or private partnerships, the railroads formed corporations and sold stock to the general public. This type of financing set the pattern for investment, which led to the creation of the modern corporation. Railroads were a catalyst to economic growth the likes of which the country had never known.
Richards knew that a rail line linking his landholdings to Philadelphia would increase their value and make it possible for him to turn some of his vast acreage into cash. Even if a land boom didn't materialize, Richards and his fellow businessmen would still benefit from reduced costs of transporting their glass and iron. At the time, goods manufactured in South Jersey were shipped to Philadelphia by horse and wagon over sandy trails, which were often impassable in bad weather.
Excerpted from Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson. Copyright © 2002 Nelson Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Plexus Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Nelson Johnson practiced law for 30 years, during which time he was active in Atlantic City and Atlantic County politics. He is currently a judge of the New Jersey Superior Court, sitting in the Civil Division of Atlantic County. He lives in Hammonton, New Jersey.
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